The Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival returns, providing a space for under-represented voices and fostering emerging talents


tacey J. Gomez has created several videos sharing migrant stories and supporting anti-deportation campaigns.

Ten years ago, the Guatemalan-Canadian filmmaker, who is part of the Mayan diaspora, honed her passion for migrant justice in the community, learning to share experiences through film.

“I made this video looking at different definitions of poverty, and so I’ve always been interested in putting a spotlight on people, really handing them the mic to be able to share their stories,” she recalls.

Making the transition from videos to filmmaking, Gomez’s first film, 20 Nawales, will screen at the Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival (HIFF) as part of the Atlantic Auteurs program. A one-minute short-film, it packs a lot in that small amount of time.

Stacey J. Gomez

With 20 scenes at different locales in Halifax and Conrad’s Beach, 20 Nawales focuses on the Mayan world view.

“There are 20 energies, and each person is born with an energy,” Gomez explains. “Each day also has its energy. The short film is trying to explore those 20 nawales, how being here in Canada, being born and growing up here that I have a North American lens, and how I see them. So it’s exploring them also within the geography here in Nova Scotia.”

This short film resonates as one considers the ongoing pandemic and the growing impact Black Lives Matter, Indigenous rights, and other recent minority group movements. Gomez emphasizes that it’s about finding inner strength from within all the energies within the community, language, culture, and ancestors.

“With COVID-19, it’s meant isolation—it’s been trying for people and their mental health, especially with racialized communities, especially Black and Indigenous communities here,” she explains. “It’s a constant assault on people’s lives. So myself, as part of the Mayan diaspora, [strength] comes from internally and also from my ancestors.”

She’s happy about the opportunity to screen her short film at HIFF as a local filmmaker within her community and enjoyed the experience of learning the craft from peers so she can improve on her filming and documentary skills.

“I had an opportunity to hear from other filmmakers who have more experience in filmmaking,” she says. “It’s pretty incredible to have the opportunity for exchange between filmmakers at different points in their filmmaking journeys.”

While she’s disappointed that she can’t experience the audience’s reactions like at a live screening, Gomez appreciates the opportunity to share her work. “It makes it more accessible to others,” she says. “People can stream it from their own homes, it’s free, and many of the films will be up for several days, so that will hopefully mean that ultimately more people will get to see another film.”

HIFF runs Nov. 12–15, 2020. It’s the festival’s fourteenth edition, the first with coordinator Tara Thorne. When the pandemic hit in March, she believed HIFF wouldn’t happen. When things began reopening in July, HIFF opted for a free model since it couldn’t be at its usual location, Neptune Theatre’s studio stage.

“When I started, they had the festival fully booked, which is atypical,” Thorne says. “When we decided to go with this free model that a lot of people have been doing, some of those films were released for rent or people had pulled them out saying, ‘we don’t want any part of this virtual thing that people were doing.’  The programming committee had to scramble a little bit and find some additions.”

As the festival moves to people’s home screens, Thorne hopes the audience isn’t suffering from online burnout. “We don’t have targets we’re working towards, no number we’re trying to hit,” she says. “We believe in our program, we’re doing our best to bring what we bring every year, and hopefully people will want to jump online and check it out.  Next year, maybe we’ll all be back at Neptune or somewhere else, somewhere downtown in person that would be very nice for everyone.”

Highlights of this year’s virtual format include the Atlantic Auteurs program, which will feature 11 short films from Atlantic Canada, including Gomez’s. Additionally, the opening movie for HIFF is L.A. Tea Time, a story from Montreal’s Sophie Bédard Marcotte. As the lead actor in the movie, she takes a road trip to Los Angeles in the hopes of meeting and having tea with filmmaker Miranda July.

A low-cost production called So Pretty, adapted from Ronald M. Schernikau’s novel of the same name, is another must-see. New York filmmaker Jessica Dunn Rovinelli directs and co-stars this story about four queer and trans youths who face the challenge of trying to keep their proto-utopian community.

So Pretty by New York filmmaker Jessica Dunn Rovinelli.

“Her techniques and approach to filmmaking will resonate with many local filmmakers who like her, aren’t working with a lot of money,” Thorne says. “It’s resource-based filmmaking.”

HIFF’s staff and programming committee are all white people but the organization is trying to be mindful of inclusivity and diversity. When tickets are reserved, audience members have the option to donate money to the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre or the Delmore Buddy Daye Learning Institute.

Supporting local filmmakers like Gomez is a key mandate for HIFF, providing an opportunity for emerging talents.

“HIFF is a weird kind of art festival,” Thorne says. “It’s out there, it’s fringy, and it’s a discovery festival… We hope it’s an event that filmmakers are looking forward to, and when a lot of people do work based on festival deadlines, we know that and hope that they think of us when they’re doing that. It’s just a great opportunity to showcase the work that we’re trying to support all year round, whether it’s through workshops or rentals or just being a resource in the community.”

Meanwhile, Gomez continues to explore ideas for her next documentary film. She dreams to screen on a bigger stage such as the Fin Atlantic film festival. She’s striving to improve her skills while being part of a unique community, other filmmakers from under-represented communities to showcase their work.

Gomez hopes 20 Nawales will connect with audiences regardless of race or culture.

“I hope it resonates with people’s experiences,” she says. “I identify as Mayan K’iche’, but I know I am not the only one that feels some of the things that come out in the short film… It’s really important to have the voices of people here in Nova Scotia, especially of marginalized communities like Black and Indigenous people… We don’t often hear those voices because of structural racism that exists throughout different institutions. That’s why I think it’s important to take up space within the film industry and community and find the supports we, as racialized communities, need. It’s super important also to hear Nova Scotian voices in the landscape of Canadian film.”

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